My mom has had problems with money for as long as I’ve been alive. Growing up, it was common to see my mother go on shopping sprees, and then hide the bags in her closet before my dad got home.
The closest we ever came to discussing the event that began my descent into mountains of credit card debt was her quietly saying over the phone, “I’m sorry I ruined your credit score.”
I was a 26-year-old college graduate about to start making $27,000 a year at my first job in New York, and found myself in need of $2,000 to sign a lease on a new apartment. Unable to get financial help from my parents, I applied for a line of credit from my bank. When I received a letter of denial stating that I had a poor credit rating, I was confused. I only had one credit card that I’d opened when I was 18. I used it infrequently, and always paid on time. Visa had rewarded my good financial habits by raising my credit limit to nearly $9,000. How could my credit score have gotten so bad?
I pulled up my credit report and was shocked to see my credit score below 400 (most credits scores are between 600 and 750). I pored over the report and saw all the things I expected to see—and then something unexpected: an American Express card that had been maxed out beyond its $20,000 limit due to extensive late fees.
I did the first thing any confused and broke 20-something does. I called my mom. When I mentioned the AmEx card, she said, “Oh, don’t you remember when I got you a card from my account?”
“Nope,” I said. I’ve never had an American Express card in my life.
“Well,” she said, “that card shouldn’t be on your report anyway, because it was paid off and closed a long time ago.”
I should mention here that my mom and I have almost the exact same name, with just a few different letters in our first and middle names.
We tend not to talk about much in my family. If there are problems, we ignore them until they go away. I didn’t ask my mom outright if she’d opened the card in my name. I just assumed. Her subtle admission of guilt came after I called in tears because I had to take a $2,000 cash advance on my credit card at a 22 percent interest rate. I cried because I knew it would take me years to pay off that debt.
The single statement from her that she was even aware of an AmEx card was enough to confirm my suspicions. There was no other explanation for a $20,000 AmEx bill in my name besides my mom opening it. My parents had hundreds of thousands of dollars in credit card debt, and I’m fairly certain most of it came from my mom. It wasn’t a stretch to believe that besides cards in her and my dad’s names, she’d have one in mine too.
Starting out my new, independent life already in the hole credit-wise was pretty awful. Shaken by it, I let that terrible credit score give me free rein on the remainder of my $9,000 Visa limit. I figured my credit score was already in the crapper, so I might as well enjoy the credit I did have left. What was the point of being responsible now?
Living in Manhattan on less than $30,000 a year required that I sometimes buy a MetroCard, or pay for groceries with a credit card, but more often than not, I indulged in retail therapy: a new camera here, an Anthropologie splurge there, and more luxury yarn than I could possibly knit. (I’m really not as twee as that sentence makes me sound, I promise.) I also cashed out a life insurance policy that my dad had opened for me when I was a kid. The spiraling continued, but I managed to pay the monthly minimums until I got laid off from my full-time job. The delinquencies and late fees began stacking up, and my credit score continued to plummet. I didn’t care—credit card debt had become my way of life. I had given up. I threw out the bills and ignored the onslaught of phone calls from my creditors.
After getting laid off, and unsuccessfully looking for a job with no more credit to rely on to finance living my life in New York, I left the city. I hitched a ride with a friend who was driving out west where I had some family and friends to stay with while I got back on my feet. I found a full-time job, and was making enough money to have a few bucks left after paying my bills for the first time in my life. It was time I got my financial life back. I thought I’d give grown-up stuff, like paying off debt, a try again.
I haggled with my credit card company, and tried to convince them to erase all the late fees that had accumulated after I had given up paying off my debt. We compromised with a payment plan at a reasonable 1 percent interest rate—late fees still intact. It was much better than the 22 percent rate I was paying before. I signed up for automatic debit payments, so I couldn’t rationalize not paying the bill, and managed to budget around the amount coming out of my account every month.
I still sometimes found myself making $2.13 last for seven days until my next paycheck, but at least I was paying off my bill. I was proud to see that auto-debit come out of my account every month. Learning the hard lessons of my irresponsibility helped me understand that I never wanted to have to experience all this again. I’d try to imagine what I could have spent that money on every month, and how I had very little to really show for all that debt. That was the real kicker: not being able to go home to visit my family, or do fun stuff with friends because I had to pay my credit card bill.
Now, almost four years have passed since that fateful and inauspicious beginning to “real life,” and I’ll be debt-free in approximately 18 months. It was a long, hard lesson to learn, and required ignoring pretty much everything I thought I knew about money.
My mom and I still have never spoken of that AmEx card, other than that one sentence I knew was painful for her to utter. If I asked her about it today, I have no idea if she’d deny it, or come clean. We still have a great relationship, and I stopped being angry about this incident a couple years ago, because I know she hadn’t done it maliciously. I know her history of spending, and I know she has a problem. My dad has stopped allowing her access to their main bank accounts because of it. I also know that she never considered that it would cause a problem for me, since the account was eventually paid off. I think it surprised her to see it show up on my credit report.
This isn’t one of those happy endings where everything is tied up in one neat little package. I’m still dealing with controlling my irresponsible spending, and living paycheck to paycheck. But, if I ever get frustrated, I just think about what my mom has done in pursuit of material comforts, and I find myself motivated to be better than that and to make better choices.
At the very least, I know she probably won’t ever open a credit card in my name again. It wouldn’t be worth it now. My credit score still isn’t that great.
Lianne left New York for the Rocky Mountains, but still misses Central Park. After growing up writing Babysitters Club and American Girl fanfic, she now works as a copywriter. Photo: thisreidwrites